September 10, 2009 / 4:55 PM / 8 years ago

Family seeks return of Vermeer art sold to Hitler

VIENNA (Reuters Life!) - Heirs of a prominent Austrian family are seeking the return of Vermeer masterpiece "The Art of Painting" sold under duress to Adolf Hitler during World War Two and now a jewel of Vienna's art history museum.

A lawyer for the Czernin family said it had written to Austria's education, culture and art ministry asking for the work, valued at 100 million euros ($146 million), to be given back after employing a researcher to determine its provenance.

The Czernin family will take no legal action for now, pending a response from the ministry, attorney Alexander Theiss said. A ministry spokesman said a provenance research commission was studying the matter, declining further comment.

"We are fully confident that the Republic of Austria will carry out an open, fair and transparent proceeding, unlike in the 1960s," he told Reuters.

He said restitution claims were turned down then on the grounds that Hitler had legitimately paid for the painting he wanted for his "Fuehrer" museum in Linz, near his hometown.

In 1940, Count Jaromir Czernin, who had a wife of Jewish origin, sold the painting to the Austrian-born Nazi dictator for one million reichsmarks -- or about 3.5 million euros -- to save the life of his family, said Theiss.

Czernin, a brother-in-law of former Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg who was ousted in the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, was allowed to sell the Vermeer only to Hitler, Theiss said.

"There are conversation records showing that the family had to hand over the painting or something dreadful would happen to them," he said.

After World War Two, the masterpiece turned up in the collection of Vienna's flagship Kunsthistorisches Museum.

"(Johannes) Vermeer never sold the painting. Until his death he kept it in his studio as a flagship painting. This makes the picture so special," said museum director Sabine Haag. "Restitution would leave a delicate gap in the assets of the museum."

But the museum would respect any decision by the ministry.

Some 65 years after World War Two, thousands of confiscated artworks are still to be given back to their rightful owners, restitution experts say.

While Austria has returned over 10,000 pieces of art, including paintings by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, after passing a restitution law, heirs often have to go to court to prove the art was looted.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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